A Commentary on Psalm 133
This beautiful psalm is traditionally attributed to King David. However, its style and language leave little doubt that it was written some five centuries after David’s time, when the faithful remnant returned to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylonia. It is one of the six “wisdom” psalms, 1, 49, 73, 113 127 and 133. These psalms were part of a body of Hebrew literature and poetry designed to teach moral principals to groups of pilgrims to the holy Temple at Jerusalem. It is a particularly appropriate way to introduce the initiation of those who are beginning their pilgrimage to light in Masonry.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
Pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem came from all walks of life. Ancient Israelite society was strictly stratified and class-conscious, and it was rare for one class to have social intercourse with another. The one exception was in pilgrimages to the holy shrines and to the Temple. People of all walks of life went on these pilgrimages, and as they traveled together, class and background were ignored. They even referred to each other as brethren. Even in today’s society people are all too aware of class and socio-economic levels. In Masonry, however, we value the principle that despite our individual backgrounds, we meet on the level and all are equal as brothers. “On this principle, Masonry unites men of every country, sect and opinion, and conciliates true friendship among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.”
“It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments.”
In the ancient Middle East anointing was a common practice, consisting of pouring scented olive oil on the head. It was used not only to signify elevation to a high rank, such as the anointing of a king or priest, but also to symbolize a change in status, such as the official recognition of a boy’s becoming a man. When an honored guest was received into one’s home it was basic courtesy to greet him with a kiss on both cheeks, then to wash his feet and anoint his head with oil (Ps. 23:5, Lk. 7:44ff). Anointing was usually with enough oil that a few drops would run onto the collar of the robe. It was a rare man whose robe collar was not oily, and one whose hair was not oily would have been suspect). When the anointing was for a special honor enough oil was used that it ran onto the beard, and when a king or high priest was anointed enough was used that it would run down the full length of the robe (Aaron was the first high priest). No honor was higher, so the unity of brethren is as wonderful as the anointing of a king or high priest.
“As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion:”
During the summer months rain was extremely rare in most parts of Palestine, and the landscape was arid, dusty and brown. Mount Hermon, on the other hand, because of its high altitude and the abundance of rain and snow from October to April, was bathed in dew every morning even during the summer. The mountainside of Hermon was therefore green and lush all year round. There were two main pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem each year: the Feast of the Firstfruits (Bikkurim) in early June, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth) in September. Although the crops flourished in the fertile lands, the city of Jerusalem was hot and dry at these times. Despite the harsh and dry conditions, however, the beauty of brotherhood was as refreshing as the dew of Hermon, and brought refreshment to the mountains of Zion (Jerusalem).
“For there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life forevermore.”
God blessed Jerusalem as the heart of faith. It was there that Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac and that God established David’s kingdom; it was there that Jesus died and rose again; and Muslims believe that it was from there that Mohammed ascended to heaven. And as the prophets promised countless times, God blesses His people when they live in unity. The Jews revere life as one of the greatest of all God’s gifts to man — a standard Jewish toast and blessing is l’chaim, “to life.” To them, as it is to all Masons, life is not an end in itself. It is the great unifying gift and blessing, the one thing that we all have in common with each other and that unites us with God.
A Commentary on the Amos Passage
The seventh chapterof the book of the Prophet Amos begins with his threefold vision. In the first two parts Amos sees Israel, because of her sins, threatened with destruction by a plague of locusts and then by an all-encompassing fire. As each calamity looms Amos prays for God’s mercy on the nation, and his prayer is answered. In the third part, which opens with our passage, he sees God as the Supreme Architect of the Universe with a plumbline in his hand.
"Thus he showed me: and, behold, the LORD stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand."
The Hebrew word we translate “standing” (נצב , natsab) implies more than just standing — it denotes a position of feet planted in a stance of immovable determination. It is quite a contrast to the first two parts of the vision, in which God relents of His intent to punish Israel. God is standing upon a wall made with a plumbline — but Amos does not say whether the wall is true and solid, he simply says that it had been made with a plumbline. Was it good craftsmanship, or shoddy? Awall the is out of plumb will fall. The test of the craftsmanship of a wall is whether it is truly plumb. A wall can be a strong buttress, a weak support that can topple, or it can be a barrier. As God gave Israel the choice, so does He give us the choice as to which it shall be, and how well we will build it.
"And the LORD said unto me, 'Amos, what seest thou?' And I said, 'A plumbline.' Then said the Lord, 'Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel: I will not again pass by them any more.'”
In the first two parts of the vision God had set no firm standard, so He could relent of His judgment and withdraw the threatened punishments of locusts and fire. Now, however, He has set a plumbline — a standard — in our midst, and we will be judged by that standard. God cannot be accused of being capricious, because He has firmly established a standard by which judgment shall be made. He allowed Abraham to bargain with him about the number of righteous men in Sodom, and He allowed Amos to plea away the punishment by locusts and fire. Now, however, He has set a permanent standard and “will not pass by them any more” to reconsider his judgment. The term “pass by” (עבור, ‘abhar) might be better translated “spare.” God is saying that He has now set a standard up to which the people are capable of living, and He will not again spare them if they fall short of it.
To a Fellowcraft, the plumb is an important symbol that “admonishes us to walk uprightly in our several stations before God and man.” The punishment for failure to meet that standard is worse than “the contempt and detestation of all good Masons,” and it is even worse than the several symbolic penalties of our obligations. It is the personal shame of knowing that the spiritual wall we have built is not a buttress, but a faulty edifice; and that because it is not plumb it could topple over and become nothing but rubble. On the other hand, the joy of being part of our Fraternity is the assurance that when we fail, we have the support of our brethren to help us tear down that defective work and erect a true and upright support for our spiritual house “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
—The Rev. Richard R. Losch, 33°
A Commentary on the Ecclesiastes Passage
The Book of Ecclesiastes ("Preacher") was written by a Jewish priest named Qoheleth. While some have identified him with King Solomon, there is little to support this idea. This passage is a dire warning of our mortality, admonishing us to seize the day while we can. It alludes to the failings that come with old age. Hebrew poetry frequently used metaphor and allegory, and this passage is rich in them.
"Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;"
The meaning of the first verse is obvious: rejoice in God before the aches, pains, worries, and fears of old age get in the way of sound thinking. The Hebrew word which we translate "Creator" means more than just "maker." It implies the source of all that we are and all that we have. The implication here is that we must use the talents that are given us while we can.
"while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:"
There follows a listing of the ravages of old age and a reminder of our mortality. The darkening of the sun, light, moon, and stars refers to the failure of eyesight. In the Near East, summer storms come and go quickly, leaving the sunlight glistening on the wet ground. One of the signs of winter is that storm clouds regather after the storm, often blocking from view the sun, moon, and stars for long periods. Here Qoheleth is comparing old age with winter, when troubles seem to drag on interminably.
"in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, and the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low,"
These verses use symbolism that would have been well known to the ancient Jewish readers. The term "house" was a common metaphor for the body, and the "keepers of the house" were the arms and hands, which begin to tremble. The "strong men" are the legs, which begin to "bow." Unfortunately, English does not indicate the pronunciation of this. The Hebrew word which is translated "bow" means "warp" (as in bow-legged), not "bend down" (as in bow down or stoop). (Thus when we recite this passage we should pronounce it as in "bow-and-arrow," not as in "bough of a tree.") The grinders are obviously the teeth, which cease grinding when they are few. The "windows" are the eyes, which become darkened; the "doors" are the ears, which are shut; sounds are dim, even those we make ourselves. In the deafness of old age, even the sounds of chewing ("the grinding") fade.
"and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;"
Old men sleep poorly, waking at the first light, when the "voice of the bird" is heard. Some commentaries interpret this as an allusion to the fact the old men's voices rise in pitch until they sound like squawking birds, although we tend more to the first interpretation. "All the daughters of music" alludes to all the pleasant sounds that we take so for granted when we are young, and are heard only dimly by the aged.
"also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail:"
Climbing anything, especially stairs and hills, is a challenge to the aged, and simple things constantly become a severe challenge -- thus "they are afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way." When it is in its prime, a blooming almond tree becomes a profusion of white blossoms -- an allusion to the white hair of the aged. In Hebrew symbolism the grasshopper is a symbol of old age, and is often used metaphorically as a huge grasshopper on the back of the aged, weighing him down (like our metaphor of a "monkey on our back"); and finally, in old age sexual prowess fades away.
"because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:"
In much of his writing Qoheleth indicates a strong Egyptian influence. A common Egyptian metaphor for the tomb is the "long home," long referring to time rather than distance -- the eternal home. In ancient Israel it was the custom to hire professional mourners, who would tear their clothing and scream in grief during funeral processions to the grave. When someone was dying the mourners would gather in the streets outside the house and begin their wailing.
"or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern."
In wealthy homes lamps were traditionally made of gold and suspended by silver chains. Just as those today who can't afford diamonds will wear rhinestones, so in those days those who could not afford such luxuries would use lamps of base metal or pottery, paint them yellow, and suspend them from silver-colored cords. Light and water were Hebrew symbols of life. The loosened "silver" cord or the breaking and spilling of the "golden bowl" (the lamp) is a metaphor of death. Likewise, death is denoted by not being able to get water because the pitcher or the cistern-wheel is broken.
"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."
This hearkens back to Genesis 3:19, "Dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return." This book was written before the Jews developed any theology of resurrection or everlasting life. They believed that on death the soul simply returned to God, no longer conscious of its own existence. Most Jews of Qoheleth's time believed that death was the end of everything, and that all that really mattered was how we lived this life. To Qoheleth, then, it was critically important that we make full use of our facilities while we can, and use them for God, because it will quickly become too late.
—The Rev. Richard R. Losch, 33°